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Three years after major grocery store closures, some Indy neighborhoods still struggle

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Marion County resident Sharonna Moore grew up around gardening. 

“My grandfather’s brother grew his own food, and we’d go out and pick it right from the garden and prepare it for dinner,” she recalled. “Eating food grown in my backyard was second nature.” 

A resident of Lawrence, Moore has tended to her own personal garden for most of her adult life. But she almost lost the opportunity to continue doing what she loves in April 2017 when she suffered a heart attack. 

“When I left that hospital growing my own food became even more important, not just for me, but for my community,” Moore said. 

Moore lives near 38th Street and Post Road, an area that has gone without a viable grocery store for quite some time. It’s one of the many food deserts in Marion County. The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area “vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods.” Specifically, the USDA is concerned with urban areas where at least 33 percent of the population resides more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. Residents in these areas are often low-income and lack the transportation to get to the nearest grocery store, so they turn to gas stations and convenience stores for their day-to-day meals. 

The effect of living in a food desert goes beyond not having access to fresh and healthy food. Residents who cannot get to a proper grocery store or farmers market are left with less than ideal options. 

“People don’t understand that when the only options you have are bad options, you’re choosing between chips and candy or fried chicken and french fries because there is nothing else,” Moore said. 

Just steps from her house are multiple fast food options and even a restaurant that offers to fry chicken and fish for residents for a small fee. These type of food options can lead to diseases like obesity, hypertension and diabetes that plague African-American communities across the country. 

In Marion County, 35 percent of African-Americans are affected by high blood pressure, 74 percent are classified as obese or overweight and 16 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes according to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. White residents in Marion County are affected by these diseases 27 percent, 58 percent and 13 percent, respectively. 

Sandra Cummings, an administrator for Chronic Disease Programs at the Marion County Public Health Department said whether a person develops these diseases often comes down to food choice and more importantly food access. 

“Processed foods and high sodium foods lead to high blood pressure and high blood pressure can then lead to other issues like kidney disease and heart disease,” she said.

Poor food choices and overly large portions can also lead to obesity, which forces organs to work even harder to keep the body functioning. 

Cummings and her team understand the reality residents face in neighborhoods like Moore’s and they are making changes based on the landscape of the community. For the Marion County Public Health Department this means working with convenience stores and gas stations to make small changes such as advertising water outside of a store rather than soda, or putting fresh fruit at the checkout counter instead of candy. 

“Grocery stores are not coming back, “ Cummings said. “We’ve been talking about this for five years. Double 8’s left three years ago and no grocery store has replaced them. At this point, it’s about working within communities to identify the need of that community and the possible solutions.” 

Shellye Suttles, the food policy and program coordinator for the city’s Office of Public Health and Safety agrees that the dream of grocery stores like Double 8 and Marsh coming back are long gone. 

“Research has repeatedly shown that opening a new grocery store in a neighborhood has no effect on healthful eating or the health of residents,” she said. “Residents need culturally-relevant education and support from public health organizations to improve their diets. This is why it’s so important for the City of Indianapolis to support community food projects.”

After seeing family members and neighbors struggle to get healthy food, Moore knew she had to do something. So, she secured funding and support from Monarch Beverage and created Lawrence Community Garden, a 7.6-acre garden located on 46th Street, just east of Post Road. Although the garden has been up and running for only a year and a half, it’s already made an impact. Moore donates 50 percent of what she grows to local pantries so that residents outside of Lawrence will have access to better food options. 

This summer, the garden hosted its first summer youth program. Teens ages 12-15 worked in the garden and learned how to plant, grow and harvest different fruits and vegetables. The program taught participants about entrepreneurship and even gave them the opportunity to earn money from the food they were able to harvest and sell at The Black Farmers Market, another initiative Moore has created within the last year. 

Similar to Lawrence Community Garden, Moore founded The Indiana Black Farmers Cooperative as a way to get fresh food to more people in nearby neighborhoods. On the third Sunday of every month the market sets up shop at CAFE Indy, a community center on the east side of town. On the fourth Sunday of the month, the market stops at St. Andrew’s Apostle Church so residents can come and purchase produce, art and hair and body products. All of the Indiana Black Farmers grow and sell organic foods and they makes sure each farmer has unified pricing and is bringing at least one item that is different so no one competes with one another and all leave making a profit. Since Moore knows the financial reality of residents in the neighborhoods where these markets are hosted, they accept SNAP and WIC. They also sell everything at market rate so that it’s fair and affordable to patrons. The market serves upwards of 400 people each weekend. 

Moore isn’t the only one working to get better food in low-income neighborhoods across Marion County. Jump IN for Healthy Kids is competing to be named one of the healthiest communities in the United States. The organization is working with residents in four zip codes in Marion County  —46216, 46226, 46235, 46236 — to assess priority needs. Currently, they’re working with the Marion County Public Health Department in their quest to add more fresh food options to the convenience stores already in the area. Jump IN has also partnered with 19 schools within those chosen zip codes to improve school wellness policies and help educators determine how to communicate best practices around nutrition and physical activity. 

Additionally, groups like Kheprw Institute hosts a monthly community-led food cooperative that provides fresh, affordable food and supports local farmers. For $20 a month ($15 for residents who are 55+ or on SNAP/EBT) the group buys fresh food collectively to get it at wholesale prices from local farmers. Residents can then pick up the food on the second Saturday of every month at Kheprw Institute building on Boulevard Place in the Crown Hill neighborhood. 

Another grocery store is set to close at the end of the month. Kroger at 46th Street and Arlington Avenue will be empty come Sept. 1. Moore has plans to bring the Black Farmers Market to the empty Kroger lot the following weekend for those affected. Though grocery stores may not be entering Marion County’s food deserts any time soon — if ever — Moore says she isn’t worried and she’s no longer depending on them to get healthy, fresh food to her neighbors. 

“I grow my medicine in that garden, so I know others can too,” Moore said. “When I left that hospital, I was 43 years old and taking nine pills. A year later, I’m taking two and a half pills. Food is your health. When we start putting better things in our bodies, better things come out. If we learn how to feed one another, grow our own food and cook it, we won’t need a grocery store. That’s why the work we’re doing is so important. We have home grown food all over the city, we just didn’t know it.”

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